Thomas R. Pickering on Iran, Istanbul and the future

Thomas R. Pickering, with his long and distinguished career in the U.S. diplomatic service, has emerged as a brave and reputable advocate for real diplomacy with Iran. While the idea of a U.S.-waged military conflict is generally considered a high-cost and low-benefit scenario (though war drums can still be heard), the notion of pursuing engagement is still rather taboo in Washington. So Pickering is brave because he’s not simply anti-war, he’s pro-engagement, and he is making his points in a political climate where Israeli and American pro-Israeli pressure for more punitive measures against Iran is high and public opinion seems more afraid of Iran than afraid of a war with Iran, no doubt influenced by some loud and dangerously ignorant voices. Pickering has nevertheless been gracefully relentless, like the true diplomat that he is. On Monday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published his take on the recent talks between Iran and Western powers in Istanbul. He writes:

Two thoughts at this point are relevant for the future of Iranian negotiations: First, the openness of both sides to “expert-level” talks — such as those between the assistants to EU foreign policy chief Lady Catherine Ashton and the Iranian representative to the talks, Saeed Jalili — is at least an effort to take things from the general and procedural toward the potentially specific. The Iranian side seems to be interested in a step-by-step process that will make obligations reciprocal and presumably equal in some fashion, and that is based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the latter element a code word that conveys the Iranians want acceptance of their right to enrich uranium, presumably for civil purposes only. Such an agreement could be in accord with the treaty, but it would run counter to the Security Council resolution that seeks a freeze on enrichment in Iran. There are now new openings for progress. Experts could help bridge the gaps. The parties’ willingness to try to do so will be a further positive signal.

The second thought: The current political situation provides some impetus for progress. Given a willingness on both sides to seek agreement, the pressure of sanctions against Iran, and Israeli interest in some kind of a military strike before the US elections, efforts to maximize this opening would constitute a wise and fruitful course of action.

And this is how Pickering ended his recent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, more words from the wise:

An Iranian friend of mine who has played an important role in Iranian foreign policy over the years once told me that “The historical record shows that every time we have been ready, you have not been, and every time you have been ready, we have not been.” Maybe we can emerge from that  position of the past to begin with some small things – that we can find the way to pull the curves of mutual interest together rather than have them continue to bend apart.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.